Fifty years of the motorway

Just short posts this week, as I’m mostly out and about.

The first proper motorway in Britain opened fifty years ago this month – the M1. It’s hard to imagine life without motorways – those snaking ribbons of tarmac, the service stations, the blue-and-white signs and the seemingly endless congestion. Do we love them today? Probably not, if asked, but back in 1959, the M1 was magical. People queued up to see the modern way to travel…

Schoolchildren at the newly-opened M1, 1959 (Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society)

Schoolchildren at the newly-opened M1, 1959 (Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society)

Part of the magic must have been the sense of space, of an endless future unfolding. Or, less lyrically, the fact that the M1 was empty…

View from a car on the M1, 1960 (Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society)

View from a car on the M1, 1960 (Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society)

Of course, that didn’t last. As the motorways spread, and filled up, they became less magical, more mundane. When the Transport Research Laboratory took a core sample of the M1 in the 1980s for tests, we’d already fallen out of love. The core came to us in the 1990s, and I bet it had been used as a doorstop before we picked it up…

Core sample of M1 motorway, 1980s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Core sample of M1 motorway, 1980s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It’s on show in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, tucked away between a speed camera and a lawnmower. Important, but everyday. How quickly the lustre of modernity fades…

If you’re interested in our relationship with our roads, I can heartily recommend Joe Moran’s excellent new book, ‘On Roads’. A cracking read.

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